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Conditions InDepth: Headache

Headache refers to head pain (cephalgia). There are several different types of headache, including:

Headaches may also have other causes, such as:

  • Side effects of medications
  • Overuse of medications to treat headaches
  • Infections
  • Bleeding
  • Head injury
  • Increased pressure in the head due to problems, such as a tumor

While the precise cause of many headaches remains unknown, several theories exist. The causes of a headache vary depending on the type of headache.

Tension Headache

Tension headache refers to head pain associated with stress and muscle contraction. These headaches may occur only occasionally in response to a stressful event. They may also be chronic, occurring frequently. Some tension headaches are nearly constant, with daily pain that may vary in intensity. Tension headaches occur when muscles in the neck, face, and scalp contract and produce pain. The precise cause of this muscle contraction is unknown, but stress, anxiety, depression, eyestrain, and other factors may contribute.

Migraine

Migraine is a type of recurring headache that involves blood vessels, nerves, and brain chemicals. Sensations such as visual changes, called auras, may precede a migraine. The International Headache Society has a system that classifies migraines as one of two types: migraine occurring with an aura and migraine occurring without an aura. Migraines may occur several times a week or once every couple of years. Migraines may be so severe that they interfere with your ability to work and carry on normal activities.

An internal or external trigger sets off a process that results in migraine headaches. The exact trigger is often unknown. It is possible that the nervous system reacts to the trigger by conducting electrical activity that spreads across the brain. It leads to the release of brain chemicals, which help regulate pain.

Cluster Headache    TOP

Cluster headache is a type of severe, recurring pain that is located on one side of the head. It received its name from the clustering or pattern of frequent headaches that usually occur.

There are 2 main types of cluster headaches. Either type of headache may convert to the other type:

  • Episodic cluster headaches—(80% of all cases) occur one or more times daily for several months. The headaches then enter a period of remission and come back months or years later.
  • Chronic cluster headaches—(20% of all cases) occur almost daily with, at most, one headache-free month during a year.

The cause of cluster headaches is unknown.

Sinus Headaches    TOP

Sinus headaches are associated with inflammation of the sinuses (called sinusitis). The sinuses are hollow cavities in the skull. Colds and allergies cause inflammation of the nasal passages and can lead to sinusitis. Allergies and viral upper respiratory infections increase nasal secretions and cause tissue lining the nasal passages to swell. This results in nasal congestion and stuffiness. The nasal passages become blocked and normal drainage cannot occur. Secretions that are trapped in the sinuses may become infected with bacteria or, rarely, fungus. The swollen tissues or infection may create pain and pressure.

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References

Cluster headache. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116292/Cluster-headache. Updated February 16, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2017.
Headache. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116292/Cluster-headache. Updated May 22, 2017. Accessed September 29, 2017.
Headache—frequently asked questions. National Headache Foundation website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed September 29, 2017.
Migraine in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114718/Migraine-in-adults. Updated August 9, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2017.
NINDS headache information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Headache-Information-Page. Accessed September 29, 2017.
Tension-type headache. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated February 8, 2017. Accessed September 29, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review BoardRimas Lukas, MD
Last Updated: 12/20/2014

 

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